Updated: Illinois Teachers’ Retirement System and Tier II Pension Law: An Overview


February 7, 2024

Illinois state government has the responsibility to fund five public pension systems: the Teachers’ Retirement System (“TRS”); the State Employees’ Retirement System (“SERS”); the Judges’ Retirement System (“JRS”); the State Universities Retirement System (“SURS”); and the General Assembly Retirement System (“GARS”). The state’s pension systems are not in a good place fiscally. As of November 2022, the state’s five pension systems collectively had $248 billion in liabilities, but only $109 billion in assets to cover those liabilities. This results in a funded ratio across all five state systems of just 44 percent.

In a poorly conceived attempt to reduce overall costs for the pension systems, legislators passed Public Act 96–0889 in 2010, which modified the Pension Code by creating a new tier of retirement benefits that were significantly less than the benefits payable under the state’s prior plan. Known as “Tier II,” these lesser benefits were applicable to all workers eligible to participate in any of the state’s five public pension plans that were hired on or after January 1, 2011. The concept of using a lesser benefit level to reduce overall costs in the state’s five pension systems was poorly conceived, because all the data show that plan benefits were not the driver of either the creation of the unfunded liability the state owes to its pensions systems, or the growing financial pressure that the pension systems are putting on the state’s General Fund.

Those lesser Tier II benefits created problems. For instance, it clearly is not equitable for the state to charge public workers the same contribution rate for lesser benefits than their peers receive. Of course, because their benefits are less than provided under Tier I, members of the Tier II system have less retirement security than their Tier I peers have, despite providing the same public services. On top of that, from a purely fiscal perspective, the design of the Tier II system will ultimately put Illinois in violation of the Federal Insurance Contributions Act (“FICA”) exemption. This exemption creates a “Safe Harbor” which allows state governments to be exempt from enrolling public sector employees in Social Security coverage—and hence paying into the Social Security system—but only if those employees are provided a “sufficient” pension package from the state claiming the exemption. There is a growing consensus that the design of Tier II, which charges its members the same contribution rate as Tier I members, but pays a much lower retirement benefit, will be insufficient under the aforesaid federal Safe Harbor standards. This report has been updated to include small efforts that have been made to modify Tier II benefits and allow for Safe Harbor compliance within some pensions systems, though progress thus far has been insufficient.

The policy questions this raises for decision makers are varied, and include, at a minimum: how can Tier II be modified to provide a level of benefits that would satisfy federal Safe Harbor requisites, create retirement security for Tier II members, and help recruit high quality workers to the public sector generally and teaching specifically?

This report analyzes those questions using data from TRS, which is Illinois’ largest pension system by number of enrollees, liabilities, and asset holdings, and will provide:

  1. A breakdown of Federal Safe Harbor and Social Security Equivalence standards;
  2. An overview of TRS;
  3. An explanation of why Tier II benefits exist in Illinois; and
  4. A demonstration of how Tier II benefits are in violation of federal standards.
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Topics:Illinois Budget, Pensions, Public Pensions

Tags:Illinois Pensions, State Employee Pension, Tier II